China is taking respite in the beauty and tranquility of an imperial garden when he first meets Japan. It is easy for nations who have been alive for a long time to tell when someone is of their kind, and because of the embassy currently at court, China knows that the child before him must be the same country whose emperor has dared to address his own as an equal.
Yet he's still come to China, like so many other nations before him.
When China was still young (younger), his philosophers had taught him his purpose. He is the centre of the world, and his duty is to civilise the foreigners who will never stop seeking him. The memory of the last group of barbarians he had civilised is still fresh in his mind, the mother of his current emperor one of their descendants, and looking at the child before him, this child who claims to be from the place where the sun rises yet is not only illiterate but also dressed in pitiful scraps, China is reminded of Joseon.
Joseon, the closest thing he has to a sibling, even if they meet on the battlefield more often than not. But that is the way of neighbouring nations, China had come to understand when he was merely a child, and in Japan, China sees the possibility of a sibling he will not have to fight, not with a peninsula and a sea between them.
And beyond that, China sees in Japan the possibility of raising another nation correctly. He'll never be able to rid Joseon of the rough, unrestrained streak in her, remnants of the times she had spent, during her childhood, with the barbarians of the north, but Japan is almost a clean slate just waiting for China to mould and shape. He will never become another China, of course, because nations will always reflect their people in some way (and China knows, deep within his bones, that only his people will ever be so civilised, so cultured, so innovative, so generous to guests and so resolute against invaders), but Japan could become a truly civilised nation, the first beside himself. The thought of such a future, of not only such a nation but also a day when his philosophers, looking on from the afterlife, can be proud of him for what he has done and not what his people have done, makes China determined to be the best teacher possible to Japan.
"I'm China. If there's something you don't know, just ask me," he says with a smile.
China had never thought that one day he would be standing on the same side of the battlefield as Joseon, Japan their common enemy. But he had still been young when he thought that he could make Japan into a nation like himself. China was still not yet an adult then, and his understanding of everything has changed so very much in the near millennium that has since passed.
He's learned, since then, that there are things he cannot teach another nation. There is no way for China to transmit to Japan how it feels to have strength always flowing within him, even when he is being ravaged by war, because island nations can never know the security that comes with a vast, bountiful land. And it is innate things like this, things so intimately tied to their land and to their people, that lie at the core of who they are, indelible and defining.
This is why Japan will always be a threat, why nations can never have constant, unchanging relationships with each other, and why Joseon and Japan can never truly be his siblings, even though they readily pass for pale imitations of ones.
China had still been too young, when they first met, to recognise the wolf within Japan. Now that Japan's true self has finally bled through the civilising cloth of China's teachings, things between them will never be as they once were. It is not the first time his kindness has led to a menace, and China knows better than to hesitate, now, in striking down these creations of his when they become a threat.
He doesn't want to fall to another nation ever again.
China is captured when Wuhan falls.
The bullet through his heart, following in the wake of another through a lung only a few minutes earlier, is what finally forces him to the ground. Blood soaks through his uniform and into the dirt, and the pain is terrible. China knows that it will become bearable, though, if he just lay there for a few hours and waited for his body to eventually begin to heal itself, all while enemy soldiers pass by and take him for dead.
It would not be the first time he's done it during his long life, nor even the first time he's done it since the September 18 Incident. He is a nation, and nations do not die until they lose the reasons for their existence, their land and their people. China has not lost either in his near five thousand years, and he knows he will never lose either. He's already lived through two conquests, fought until his government fell and then lived in defiance as a hostage in his own land until his people were ready to fight again, and if history were to repeat itself for a third time, then so will he, because his people have always believed in him.
China does not, however, expect anyone to stop next to him. He does not expect to be rolled over, and he certainly does not expect to see that face looking down at him. There is no use pretending to be dead in front of Japan, though. China can still barely move, but he begins to try anyway, refusing to just let Japan take him. Japan just smiles at him (the same smile that had fooled China for so long) as heavy pressure settles onto China's wrists and knees, and then he drops a firm knee to China's chest and presses his fingers into China's carotid arteries.
China wakes in what he assumes to be a hospital room from the bandages he can feel around his chest and the IV attached to his arm. For a moment, he thinks that he's been rescued, but then he remembers Japan's hands around his neck, and China knows, with absolute certainty, that he's been taken as a prisoner of war.
The pull of metal against his wrists when he tries to lift his hands from where they are lying beside his body only confirms it.
China isn't surprised that Japan decided against torturing him. They both know that no amount of pain can force China to divulge anything. The defiance within China thrives on the pain his enemies inflict upon him. (They both remember that the pain of Japan's sword as it sliced open China's back, and not Japan's action itself, was what pierced through China's opium-induced high that night.)
Which can only mean that Japan intends to break him with kindness. But China knows (will never forget) what's beneath Japan's veneer of propriety, and more than that, he knows what's at stake.
Two can play at this game.
China goes to sleep handcuffed to his bed and wakes to the sensation of silk against his bare skin. He finds himself in a Japanese-style room, body propped up by a stack of cushions behind his back and a silk haori draped over him like a blanket.
He is naked and bound beneath the haori, and sitting primly across the table in front of him is Japan. Their eyes meet, and China forces himself to remain still, reminds himself that this is not a situation in which he should use hardness to counter gentleness.
"China-san," Japan says evenly, pleasantly, and sets his teacup onto the table. "How are you feeling?"
It takes China a moment to decide upon which language to use. They can speak each other's standard languages as they are today, but gentleness does not mean submission, and relinquishing his own language for that of another is the first step toward surrender (death). But China also cannot bear to speak his own standard language when the reason for the warping of so many sounds within it is still clinging to life on stolen land—clinging to life with Japan's help—when he should be dying a slow, deserved death for what he did, for what he dared do.
And the scar above his buttocks makes speaking in the standard language before that still too painful, even nearly a year later. But for some reason, it's surprisingly easy to dredge up the sounds of a once single language now scattered within a variety of different topolects, a language he had personally taught Japan once, so long ago now that it almost seems like a dream rather than a memory or something he had actually done.
"I am feeling well," China says politely. "Thank you for treating me."
It takes a long moment for Japan to reply with "It's what a host should do for someone who will be an honoured guest at his home."
China allows himself to chuckle, a little, at the darkness lying beneath the polite words. "Is 'honoured guest' what they call it these days?" he asks.
"As you know, China-san, it's very dangerous outside. I can't let my honoured guest get injured again."
A caged bird, then. China is beginning to understand what Japan wants, though he hadn't quite expected this. But why wouldn't Japan take his pleasure at the same time?
It is not the prospect of unwanted sex that makes his stomach coil in apprehension as much as the prospect of unwanted sex with another nation. China has had many lovers during his life, but he has been with only one other nation.
Rome had intrigued him. He was younger than China yet older in appearance, and China hadn't known what that meant. Was he still a child, even when he was nearing three thousand, or was Rome, at not much more than a third of China's age, already speeding toward his death? (Centuries later, China would realise it was both.)
When Rome pursued him, China didn't refuse. It was the first time he had met a nation who was something like an equal. The sexual relationship had been short-lived, however. Rome brought too many foreign, backward assumptions and understandings into sex, and China didn't (still doesn't) have any desire to use sex as a part of political power games.
With humans, at least the consequences of such mistakes die with them. With nations, though, they can linger forever. He's seen enough of the European nations to understand that the ghosts of past intimacies still (will always) hang between them.
After Rome, China hasn't cared to take another nation as a lover, nor has he wanted to. (He is lucky that the opium, along with other problems, made him sickly and unattractive when he was being carved apart.)
When China looks at Japan, he can still see the child standing before him on the day they first met.
But all cages have an opening, and his body is a small price to pay for freedom.
"Shall we, then?" China asks. "I wouldn't want to intrude on your time after the hospitality you've shown me."
Japan just looks at him. The fingers around his teacup are stiff.
"Would you prefer that I resist?" China asks, when Japan continues not to respond.
"No," Japan murmurs.
Japan's touch is gentle. China lets himself respond the way he would to an actual lover.
He comes from Japan's touch alone. It is an empty, resolute sort of pleasure.
There was no penetration, oral or anal. Japan does not remove his clothes, though he is clearly aroused. Instead, he retrieves a towel, along with manacles and shackles, from a bag lying beside where he had sat, and he wipes China's come off of his body before methodically placing the restraints on him. Only then does Japan untie the jute ropes binding China.
He leaves additional towels on the table, as well as some clothing.
"I'll have some food sent for you, China-san," he says before he goes.
China's body is never invaded (unlike his land). Japan never treats him with anything but courtesy (China never gives him a reason to do otherwise). China knows that Japan is trying to show him the kindness that complete submission would offer him (because there is never a question as to who holds the power between them).
But when the opportunity to escape finally comes, China does not hesitate. He makes his way back to his government, now based in Chongqing, and has them put him back into the field. He is a 男子漢, and like every other time in the past, he will fight for his land and his people until the bitter end, and even after then.
When China learns the reason behind Japan's hasty surrender, he thinks, This is justice.
If you repay injury with kindness, then how will you repay kindness? Repay injury with justice, and repay kindness with kindness. Confucius had taught him this. China has never forgotten.
Now, Japan can finally understand the immeasurable, unbearable pain that comes with the destruction of a city and the senseless slaughter of its inhabitants. He will have two scars to match the two he has given China.
No nation who has encroached upon China's sovereignty has escaped justice.
Taiwan is waiting for China outside of his hotel room. He lets her follow him inside but does not interact with her beyond asking her if she would like something to drink (she does not). They've never had a good relationship, and there is too much tension around their statūs right now. He does not know what to say to her.
China is not surprised that she is the one who eventually breaks the silence.
"Even after all these years, I still don't see what's so special about you," Taiwan says.
China smiles and turns to Taiwan, who is standing on the opposite side of the room, still in front of the door. "Don't be so mean, little sister."
She glares at him. "You can drop that act around me. Those Westerners may believe it, but I met you before Manchuria took us both to Beijing and put you under house arrest. I know what you are really like."
"Maybe I've changed," China says, still smiling. "More than two hundred fifty years of subjugation can do that to a nation."
"If you've really changed," Taiwan says in a low tone, "then you would let me keep the UN seat. The government that won the War of Resistance is with me."
"And the nation who won that war is me," China says. He is no longer smiling. "Lest you forget, you willingly fought with Japan against me. You were on the losing side."
"Why shouldn't I have?" Taiwan asks. "He's done far more for me than you ever have."
China doesn't contest this because as painful as it is, it's true. Rather, he says, "You of all people should understand the consequences of being on the losing side. If you don't regret it, then you should be willing to accept them."
Taiwan flushes. "What I can't accept is that it's you! Why does it always have to be about you? Manchuria wanted you; I was just something extra for the taking. Japan did so much for me, yet you were always the one he wanted the most. Even now, my bosses see me as a stepping stone to you, and you are about to take my UN seat! What do you have that I don't?" Her voice rises steadily until she is shouting at the end.
"I'm sorry," China says gently, "but I am 中國." It is the only answer he knows. He has gone by many names during his life, but this is the one that has always persisted, the one that explains his existence. He is China, the nation at the centre of the world. Only in the earliest days of his existence, when he had yet to meet his mother, did China experience how it feels to not be constantly sought-after in some shape or form. That was so long ago that he cannot remember the actual feeling, and he cannot imagine what it must be like for Taiwan, feeling like she's never good enough. China feels bad for her.
"My house is always open to you, though, Taiwan," he says.
"No," Taiwan says, determination in her voice. Her fists are clenched. "I know your motive. I won't let you be the death of me."
"If Japan had won, you would be heading down that path right now," China says evenly.
Taiwan stiffens. "You are the reason that it even happened!" she shrilly says, then continues bitterly, "If you didn't—Everything always comes back to you. Japan cared for me, but I might as well have been a substitute for you. Do you know what he said to me, one of the last times I saw him before he surrendered? He told me," and here Taiwan switches to Japanese, "'Your laugh reminds me of that person's.'"
She resumes in Standard Mandarin. "He always tried to make me laugh. Until he said that, I thought it was because he liked to see me happy. But he said that so gently and wistfully—who else could he have meant at a time like that? Who else's laughter could he not have?" There are tears in Taiwan's eyes. "He didn't need to say your name for me to understand that he meant you. Even when everything was crashing down around us, he was still thinking about you."
She is sobbing. China can only say "I'm sorry." He is genuinely sorry, but they both know that he is only sorry that she is hurt. He is not sorry about his place in the world, nor is he sorry about that being the cause of her pain and frustration and the battle for recognition that she is losing.
He does not attempt to comfort her because they do not have that type of a relationship. Instead, he busies himself with the tea he had begun preparing before she started speaking.
Eventually, her sobs subside. "Would you like a cup of tea?" China asks, turning to her, because he is always polite.
"No thank you," Taiwan replies, and her voice is steady. "I'll probably lose my UN seat to you soon, but I won't give up anything to you without a struggle. You don't own me. Good day."
China is smiling faintly as the door closes. Taiwan has his spirit.
But he knows that she will be living with him again one day. What has been separated for a long time will unite. What has been united for a long time will separate. This is the truth that he has lived for his entire life, and no matter what any of those Westerners say, China knows that this will never change.
Later, after China has finished his tea and done some paperwork, he attempts to meditate, but he cannot stop thinking about what Taiwan said.
Too many things about his time spent captive under Japan make sense now. Japan's gentle touches; the way it eventually seemed like he was looking for something he could not find (because what reason did China have to laugh, then?); how Japan held him so tightly after the first few times; Japan saying as he touched China, almost every time after the first, "Please come live at my house. You will be happy there, China-san."
China can't discern when Japan's feelings for him could have become love. Maybe that had already been the case when he fought with Joseon against Japan. The thought disturbs China, somewhat. Not only has he never loved another nation, but he has never known unrequited love, either. All of the people he has loved for longer than a human lifetime both loved him first and loved him more than anyone else until their dying day. He thinks of 岳鵬舉, who lived and died for him and whom China still loves deeply even now, more than eight hundred years after his death. He thinks of his mother, who took him in when he was nothing more than a child wandering along the River, who recognised him for who he is and gave him his first two names, both still closest to his heart after almost five thousand years.
China has never loved people he wanted sexually for long past their deaths. Sexual desire has never been a factor when it comes to those for whom he feels enduring love. China can understand a concept that combines them both, but such a love is only possible with another nation, and China had known for certain, after Rome, that he could never love another nation in this way. He can love only those who love him above all else, and no nation can ever love him so. They are all accountable to their own people and land and bosses first (and that is why all the people China continues to love are his own).
He pities Japan for the first time.
China travels to Japan with the ten tonnes of drinking water donated by the governments of Jilin and Changchun. Japan meets him in Sendai.
"Thank you for your kindness, China-san," Japan says. He looks tired and worn, and China feels sympathy for him. China still remembers being woken during the middle of the night by pain so immense that he could barely get his face over the floor before he started retching, and the aches had plagued him for half a year.
He hadn't had to deal with a nuclear disaster as well, then.
"It's only what I should do," China says. He will never forget what happened during the War of Resistance, and he's not sure that he will ever forgive Japan, either (Japan certainly doesn't make the process any easier), but time continues on. Justice has already been served, even if sometimes China doesn't feel like it has been (he hasn't had to deal before with a nation and their people receiving the justice that they deserved while the actual perpetrators of crimes continued living without consequence, but that's just another reason why Westerners can't be fully trusted).
And though he hasn't forgiven Japan, China has no justification for not helping him. So he does.
"Where can you use my help?" China asks.
Japan looks surprised for a moment. "I didn't think you would be staying, China-san," he says.
"Every single person helps, right?" China says and gives Japan a quick smile.
Japan bows. "Thank you. Please allow me to treat you to dinner."
China rarely refuses a free meal, and he knows that Japan will provide one that he will enjoy, but to accept one for tonight would make this more personal than it is. So he smiles and says, "Yes, but later, when things have improved. It would be selfish of us to leave for a meal tonight."
"Of course," Japan murmurs.
Cruelty can be a form of kindness, too.
China attends the G-20 summit in Cannes with his president, though he doesn't particularly want to. Little is ever accomplished at these endless meetings, and China hates that he still can't do anything on his own terms, that he still has to retain some semblance of the flighty, slightly naïve nation he had appeared to be during that long century of humiliation. This is not the kind of governance he was taught, nor the kind in which he believes.
At least the food is provided by a nation who can cook.
He sits next to Brazil at dinner, and Argentina comes to join them, followed by India and Russia. South Korea hesitates for a moment, probably intimidated by Russia, and this allows Mexico to take the last seat at the table (Joseon wouldn't have hesitated, China thinks, but this child who has taken Joseon's place in the world for now didn't grow up with the barbarians of the north or fight against Mongolia).
The conversation at the table inevitably turns to football. Argentina mentions how Messi scored three goals in Barcelona's Champions League match two days ago, Brazil starts talking about how Messi doesn't look so good on the Argentinian national team without his Barcelona teammates, and before long, they are bantering with each other. Then Mexico jumps in with how her national team actually won a title this year, and she soon gets caught up in the banter as well. They are so childishly earnest about it all that China, feeling pleasantly full from a good dinner, can't help but laugh.
In response, the three of them turn toward him, indignant, which only makes China laugh harder. They seem so young, so like children, and China has always been weak toward other nations when they appear so (Japan had once looked so young and guileless that China couldn't help but tickle him until he was reduced to helpless laughter, time and time again; it had been a welcome distraction from his own problems, and China had thought—but he knows better now). He is trying to reply to their affronted words through his laughter when he notices Japan in the gap between Brazil's head and Argentina's.
Japan is staring at him with something akin to betrayal in his expression while America chatters on next to him. He turns his gaze to America when China's eyes meet his.
But China hasn't betrayed Japan. Japan is the one who said China isn't his brother, back during a time when China had thought he could actually have siblings. Japan has always chosen his own sides, and China cannot betray anyone who isn't his.